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St. Mary's Library 'turf war' bill has hearing

Annapolis, MD- On Thursday, Feb. 1, St. Mary’s County’s Library Board of Trustees and the county’s Board of Commissioners were center stage in front of the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee.

Delegate Deb Rey [R-District 29B] and Delegate Matt Morgan [R-District 29A] co-sponsored House Bill 136. In short, the bill would require the St. Mary’s County Library Board of Trustees to submit one candidate and three alternates for appointment consideration to serve on the Board of Trustees.

Here’s the excerpt from the bill: IN ST. MARY’S COUNTY, THE BOARD OF LIBRARY TRUSTEES CONSISTS OF AT LEAST SEVEN MEMBERS APPOINTED BY THE COUNTY GOVERNING BODY FROM NOMINEES SUBMITTED BY THE BOARD OF LIBRARY TRUSTEES OR FROM OTHERWISE QUALIFIED INDIVIDUALS CHOSEN BY THE COUNTY GOVERNING BODY.

A few hours before the committee heard testimony from proponents and opponents of this bill, it was amended by Rey and Morgan (pictured, right). The amendment requests the Library Board of Trustees to submit one candidate selection and two alternates for appointment consideration.

As it stands now in St. Mary’s County, the Library Board of Trustees is not required to submit any alternates for selection consideration, but often did based on a verbal agreement.

“There are 35 boards and committees in St. Mary’s County who are appointed by county commissioners,” explained Morgan. “However, the library falls into a different category under state law, protecting it from political influence, which we agree with.”
Morgan went on to explain, “The board of commissioners is being limited with choices. Recently, there were two vacancies on the board of trustees—and 24 applicants. Only one name was pushed forward for each vacant spot. The commissioners should be able to choose from a larger pool.”

Several people from St. Mary’s County spoke both in favor of the bill and against it. Among those who testified are those who also battled over the controversial teenage sexual education class held in the spring of 2017 at the Lexington Park Library.

Jennifer Mountjoy, of Hollywood, was among those who fought to put a stop to the sex ed class in May. “The unelected library board elects their own replacements and then selects the library director. This has led the library board to become an insular clique of people who represent a very narrow mindset.”

Mountjoy accused the library board of trustees of being a “very narrow political mindset”, saying they have lost touch with much of the community in St. Mary’s County. “We have a corrupted library board who has zero accountability to the voters of St. Mary’s County. They and their minions oppose openness, transparency and accountability.”

Mountjoy continued by saying, “I think the board of trustees should be elected by the board of commissioners.”

That’s not what this bill would do, explained Commissioner John O’Connor. “It codifies what the board of trustees should be doing and makes it actual law.” If approved, O’Connor said it will bring the library board of trustees in line with the rest of the boards and committees within the county.

Delegate Edith Patterson [D-District 28] sits on the House Ways and Means Committee. While listening to testimony from the proponents of the bill, she provided evidence by way of a petition, signed by more than 500 people, who oppose the bill.
The petition she mentioned can be found on Change.org

O’Connor said those who have signed the petition are misinformed. “All we are doing is codifying the already existing process. I’m sorry if the Library Board of Trustees misinformed those who signed the petition because the process already exists.”

Those who appeared before the House committee in opposition of the bill included Denise Davis, president of the Maryland Library Association and Al Martin, chair of the Maryland State Library Board

Martin testified saying, “Our library boards need to remain bi-partisan and free from political influence. We need to keep things the way they are. Our governing bodies need to be refrained from the selection process to assure the libraries remain free from politics.”

Samantha McGuire, chapter coordinator for the Southern Maryland Area Secular Humanists (SMASH) also testified. She is the one who paid to reserve a meeting room at the Lexington Park Library for the embattled teen sex ed class.  

"This is what these [Creepy Library] folks want--to force all of us to have the same beliefs and to censor the material they find objectionable because of their religion. They enlisted the help of our county commissioners, Deb Rey and other members of the delegation. This is a trampling of our first amendment rights--freedom of speech."

Janice Walthour (pictured, right), who is a current member of the Library Board of Trustees in St. Mary’s County, also presented testimony to the committee. She stated the board has a very rigorous vetting process. “Trustees need to be chosen based on their commitment to the library, their community, and their understanding of the roles of public libraries.” Walthour said during the recent selection process, the board sent the county commissioners four names for two open positions—two recommendations and two alternates. “Our board is a good board and we do the right thing.”

Walthour also expressed frustration with how the commissioners handled the entire situation. “I feel very disheartened that our local delegates and commissioners never consulted with the board—never came to us on an official level.”

Morgan agreed during his presentation of the bill saying, “I’m disappointed this couldn’t be worked out locally.”

When TheBayNet.com asked O’Connor (pictured, left) why the two sides couldn’t sit down and work out an agreement he said it’s simple. “We’ve had correspondence and we can sit down and look at it all day long but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s just a verbal agreement. That’s not how we’re going to do things.”

O’Connor admits this issue could have been worked out on a local level but without codifying the process, both sides could find themselves in the same position in a few more years. “The Library Board of Trustees is not its own government—we’re charged with governing and there needs to be accountability across the board.”

O’Connor went on to explain this isn’t about political influence but accountability for St. Mary’s taxpayers. “Every board and committee we have in this county are governed with by-laws and checks and balances. This will bring them in line with the rest of the board and committees.”

You can follow the progress of HB 136 here. To watch the complete testimony before the Ways & Means committee, click here.

Contact Joy Shrum at j.shrum@thebaynet.com

Editor's note: Members of the St. Mary's County Board of Commissioners could not attend the committee hearing because they were sick with the flu. They did offer this letter of explanation for HB 136:

With 35 Boards and Committees working on behalf of the citizens of our community, the County Commissioners of St. Mary’s County have maintained a review and appointment process that seeks to find the most qualified and diverse within our community to fill the unique needs of each board.  As the elected representatives of our community, the county commissioners have always believed these appointments represent the commissioners’ obligations and accountability to the public.  The many appointments and screening process is something we take very serious.

In the process of receiving applications for board and committee appointments, the county commissioners welcome advice and recommendations from not only our citizens, but the various members currently serving on boards.  However, I do not believe it to be in the best interest of our county that the commissioners would be unable to reject appointment recommendations from any group or individual, and not be able to make appointments that reflect the greater concerns of our citizens and the welfare of our community at large.

Therefore, it is my opinion that appointments to the St. Mary’s County Library Board should be made in the same manner and spirit as those which the county commissioners, elected by the people, use to make all other board and committee appointments.  It will always be my position that the elected officials, voted in or out by the citizens, are the ones which should be held accountable for the actions of the people’s government.  This is why I offer my support to the proposed legislation that would make the county commissioners accountable to the citizens for library board appointments as well as all other appointments.

Signed by all the commissioners except Mike Hewitt.

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